Dogeared … and please don’t tell Miss Henry …

April 18, 2010 § 12 Comments

In second grade, I ended up in Miss Henry’s class. It could have gone quite another way. We were a big class and split into two. The other teacher was new, a complete unknown. We would have dared our fate with her, nonetheless.

Miss Henry had a serious rep, though not a particularly bad one. Still, I often got caught in the crossfire of her engineer type teaching methods and my own blithe spirit. Because I was among the 20 of us who ended up in her classroom and then once again, suffered the luck of the her draw in fourth grade as well.

Miss Henry, a lank hipless white-haired woman, was dedicated to all things traditional and correct. Other than stuffing her handkerchief into the short sleeves of her dresses after honking or sneezing into them, she was the rigid epitome of correctness. And one of the things that she adamantly preached against was any sort of abuse against books. (She had me there – I already couldn’t have agreed more.) 

She inspected our returned classroom library books with the ferocity and astuteness of a warden. No writing in books, no bent or missing pages, no inexplicable

Never read with a pen or pencil in your hand, I learned. You wouldn’t want to make any stray mark of any sort. Never eat or drink while reading. You wouldn’t want to suddenly spray the page or leave a cup ring if using your drink to hold the book open while taking notes. Never this, never that. Reading was awash in “take cares” and “don’ts.”  And never dog ear! She would sniff it out, that poor little damaged page, and reproach the page bender in front of the class.

Well her dictates have all worked very well and good over the years, resonating at odd moments.
But I have turned a page, so to speak….and literally.

While reading my writing books of late, I have been committing the Miss Henry number one sin: dogearing.

Let me explain that I see it as a sign of affection with my softcover books. I refer to my books about writing. The ones so often scoffed by others. (really? and how do you account for the piles of best-selling self help books that fly out the bookstore shelves?)

Books about writing are reference books. Yes, that’s it. I carry them around, trying to assimilate whatever wisdom between the covers and am often caught out without pen or pencil to mark  a special spot, a line, a paragraph, a reference. 

And that is why, I have, in fact, derived a simple “dogear” system.

The disclaimer: First let me mention that turning down the corner of a page, the absolute faux pas that its known to be, is not something I do lightly. And it’s not something I do to anyone else’s books but my own. Those that live here, especially on my “office” bookshelves. Further, when I’m finished with the book, I straighten out its little bends on every page, and press it out.

The single dogear     This is the simple small folding down of a page to indicate something of note was here. Maybe a word, maybe several sentences. Somehow, the dogear was inspired and later, after finishing the book, every dogeared page is re-read in search of the page-bend’s inspiration to begin with and then it is duly noted in my writing exercise book.

 The double dogear   This occurs if there is a dogear already on page 21, but something occurs on (its backside) page 22 that is of note. What to do? Maintain the first dogear, then making a bigger fold on the page (Miss Henry is in an apoplectic rage now), bend it back the other way. (Surely I should be tearing pieces off my slip like little pieces of paper and using those before falling prey to the sloppy insidious ways of a dogearing reader! Miss Henry might say. But we don’t wear slips anymore; the dress itself has fallen back to date night and church Sunday as it is, Miss Henry, so shredding my non-existent petticoat, is, as you see, impossible.)

The bookmark dogear   This appears like any dogear but it is the last dogear in the book as it progresses, thus marking the spot where this reader left off.  Could it also mean that there is something remarkable on the page as well as being the last page read so far? Hmmm…good point. Yes, but I typically review that page anyway to see what was going on when I last picked up the book.

Sure, ban me from libraries across the country and from having any books lent to me but truly I only dogear my books. I’m sorry; it releases somthing, it expands my experience, it makes me love my books more and drives a certain curiosity about going back to look at those dogeared pages in particular.

Alright, fine, I did do it once to a novel. It was a softcover cover copy of  The God of Small Things by Roy. I thought I was going to keep it. And thus claimed it through dogearing.
But it wasn’t to be so.

I couldn’t finish the book. I don’t know why. I would read two pages, dogear my spot, put it down. At the next reading, I might progress five pages, dogear, put it down. This went on for a good third of the book.

A friend was going on vacation. She wanted something to read. Yes, she would give Roy’s book a try. I smoothed the pages neatly, nearly ironing them, before giving the book to her. I was truly letting it go. This also felt good because I was done wrestling with it. At least for now.

Said friend, (she still is a very good and close friend) later confessed she couldn’t finish it either. That she had, in fact, stopped reading at the same intervals that I had. She knew by the faint trace of my dogears. 
Funny the things that can seal a friendship.

BOOK:Old School

October 3, 2009 § 9 Comments

DSCN7189I was in love with this book by the second page.
Obviously this is not a true book review; one does not start with such a line.

I like stories set in the northeast, I enjoy authors like Wharton and Salinger, and stories of prep school life.
No reason. (I must say, I was disappointed in the book PREP by what’s her name. I fell for the packaging.)

Prep school stories so often center around an individual who is there but shouldn’t be for some reason, stuck in the “NOK” position. And then his/her story of how it goes, what’s it like living there.

And so it is with OLD SCHOOL. Our narrator doesn’t fit in, doesn’t drive a Jag,doesn’t have the fat-dollar comfy life to fall back on even if he somehow didn’t do well in his studies. Little matter, it seems, as our narrator conjures or rather, alludes to his home life and actually spins a cocoon around his background to throw others off the scent. The reader must go carefully, paying attention here, watching his pose.

But alas, the reader becomes more caught up in his observations and his actual love of  the school, the place, the smell, the colors, the rituals, the community. The narrator loves it all.

The story centers on our narrator and his fellow friends who are writers.  (this cinched the book for me!)  They are on the school paper, they are writing in class and ultimately, they are competing to be write the best essay/story each year because the winner is chosen by a “real” author who then visits the school and also has a private writing session with the essay/story winner.
In his first year, it is Robert Frost. (now you know the time frame for the book!)
The second year it is Ayn Rand.
Now, mind you, our narrator is competing (or should be) so we are cheering for him, of course.

And next the visiting author will be Ernest Hemingway. What boy was not going for the prize this time? Several of our narrator’s mates are after it, to win a writing session with Papa. We have come to know them by now. We measure them, along with the narrator, to guess at how they might be doing.
To better it, one of the professors apparently knows Hemingway. It is by this great good luck that the author was culled into judging.
The competition! the excitement! the prize!

And so our narrator will dig into writing. The thing is, watching him is like watching Victor Borga. You know he’s brilliant (or would be) if he would just stop fooling around and sit down and play the piano, or, in this case, write the winning piece.

Does our narrator triumph? I will tell that you that “dissembling” is rather a major theme throughout. Don’t look for it at every turn of the page. Just go floating along on that reader’s cloud with all your antennae out. 

Tobias Wolff ‘s word patterns and timing and sentences are just so darn good, polished-to-a-surprise in nearly each of them, that you will be swept up in the writing whether you give a damn for prep school places or perfect endings or not.

Oddly though, I would guess Wolff did not attend prep school at all. I belive this is a book that could be written by an “outsider.” It has those elements which we have all come to associate with private school, the attitudes we imagine, the focus, whether we attended one or not. But Wolff could pull it off anyway, because what is a a school or any place at all after all when you get right down to it but an association, a community of characters, of individuals in one place at one time?

His characters are rich full-blown portraits, with surprises and humor. Go. Read. Enjoy a “writer’s” story. Enjoy some excellent, honed writing.

FEELING BOOKISH? here is another book, not necessarily on the same topic…

For a fine review of THE SENATOR’S WIFE by Sue Miller, go visit Tales from the Reading Room.

Books, magazines, and pens

February 17, 2009 § 9 Comments

“Read THE GOLDEN KEY,” said someone at the water cooler today. It’s an 1800s fairy tale, and surprisingly good. I don’t know the author and didn’t ask, but it came from a readaholic source, so there is likely something to it. 

In the current NEWSWEEK magazine dated Feb 23, 2009, (it’s Snarl’s but for some reason, comes to the house rather than going to his dorm. So I just kinda graze through it.) on page 44, there is a one-page article on  The Curse of Cursive by Jessica Bennett. While I find her arguments against cursive writing to be squashable and due primarily to the fact that she had so much trouble forming the letter “Q” in first grade (which I understand and with which I empathize), her anti-cursive diatribe is fortunately humorous because her arguments against the “loops and swirls” are weak. She has not a dotted “i” to stand on.
But funny wins the day at the end of the day and she manages some humor. 

However, Bennett comments during her essay that “by the 1890s, even Henry James dictated his novels to a secretary.”  Hmmm… well, we don’t know if it’s because his handwriting was awful OR because he didn’t enjoy writing in longhand OR if he had an injury OR if he maybe had a thing for the secretary and could thus keep her occupied and near him by dictating his words. I am always suspicious of facts plucked from Here and thrown into There to make a point. But, mention a writer and his or her habits, and you have my full attention.

Bennett’s last lines, following some of her anecdotal humor, are perhaps her best:  “So if loops and swirls make you feel better, be my guest. In fact, go buy a fountain pen. The economy needs all the help it can get.”

True enough, I suppose. Although I won’t have my precious pens slighted, nor thought merely precious.
I love my G2s; my freebies from Microsoft; my Tiffany slim silver pen that’s kept in all its royal velvet for doing hand-written notes only; my purple pens that write blue, a whole box of them given to me by a pharmaceutical rep three years ago; my straight blue stick BIC pens which my Dad always used, too; and then, the “tramp” pen, the one I find suddenly somewhere in the house, long forgotten, but it just happens to write beautifully.

As for cursive, to write cursively or not to write cursively, I laugh at how my own longhand has degenerated and take singular joy in NOT using the Palmer method anymore having adapted a blithe scrawl.

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